From Mona Lisa to The Scream: Climate activists protest by defacing art


In more than two dozen incidents since May, activists protesting government inaction on climate change have defaced famous paintings in museums across Europe, throwing liquids on artwork glass or supergluing themselves to picture frames and gallery walls.

No attacks on art have been reported in the U.S. Most of them have been in Europe, with two in Australia and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The historical artworks, under protective glass, have been obscured with a variety of substances but not permanently damaged, according to reports. Food items thrown include tomato soup, mashed potatoes and cake frosting.

Scroll over the calendar for details:

The attacks have targeted some of the most celebrated images in history, including:

Targeted artworks vary in size

The largest painting is a reproduction of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It’s nearly 26 feet . wide and almost 10 feet . deep. By contrast, “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is about 15 inches wide and roughly 18 inches deep.

Many of the attacks came as delegates were preparing for the U.N. climate summit COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 6. The summit gathered world leaders for negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental issues.

Though a few activists acted independently, most of the protesters are part of organizations grouped within nations. They’re targeting art to generate public outrage, while asking questions like:

Just Stop Oil
“Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

And while they’ve also engaged in acts of civil disobedience in the past, such as blocking traffic, obstructing Formula One car races, and spraying paint on buildings, it’s the assault on artwork that’s captured the public’s attention.

Concern over possible artwork damage drives people to videos and news stories. Inside museums, the use of superglue slows the removal of activists by security – and gives them time to voice their protests to museum-goers recording them with smartphones.

Activists from Just Stop Oil climate campaign group threw tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh's
Activists from Just Stop Oil climate campaign group threw tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and glued their hands to the wall beneath the painting at the National Gallery in London on Oct. 14. They were arrested and charged with criminal damage and aggravated trespass.
Handout photo, Just Stop Oil/AFP via Getty Images

But while attacks have garnered attention and controversy, museums are worried. Activists “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects,” said the International Council of Museums in a statement on Nov. 9.

Even if the artwork itself isn’t damaged, the cost of cleaning and repairing frames can add up to tens of thousands of dollars, insurers say. And museums may start seeing higher insurance premiums if the attacks continue or expand and additional security is needed.

Who are the activists attacking art?

  • Just Stop Oil (U.K): The organization says it is a coalition of groups cooperating to get the government to halt exploration, development and production of fossil fuels.
  • Letzte Generation (Germany and Austria): The group says it wants the government to address climate change, starting with a speed limit of 60 mph on German highways and affordable public transport.
  • Ultima Generazione (Italy): The group says it is a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience that has asked the government to halt reopening shuttered coal-fired plants, cease drilling for natural gas, and expand solar and wind power generation.
  • Stopp Oljeletinga (Norway): The group says it wants a halt to all oil exploration on the Norwegian continental shelf.
  • Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies (Australia): The group says it’s a nonpartisan organization that uses nonviolent civil resistance to seek an end to government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
  • Extinction Rebellion (international): The organization says it is a nonpartisan international movement that uses nonviolent action and civil disobedience to get governments to act on climate change.
  • Stop Fracking Around: A Canadian group demanding an end to fracked gas.
  • Independent: No known affiliation with any climate protest group.
Members of Letzte Generation Austria splashed
Members of Letzte Generation Austria splashed “Death and Life,” a Gustav Klimt painting, with oil in the Leopold museum in Vienna on Nov. 15. The painting, behind a glass cover, was unharmed.
Letzte Generation Oesterreich, AP

Five of these groups, Just Stop Oil, Letzte Generation, Ultima Generazione, Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Stopp Oljeletinga, are part of the A22 Network. A22 is an international organization with the goal of raising public awareness of climate change and forcing governments to act.

The Climate Emergency Fund is the primary funder of A22. Climate Emergency Fund was established in 2019 to give legal support to climate activists taking part in nonviolent protest, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

A security guard cleans smeared cream from glass protecting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris after a man disguised as an old woman in a wheelchair threw a piece of cake at the painting on May 29 and shouted at people to think of planet Earth.
A security guard cleans smeared cream from glass protecting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris after a man disguised as an old woman in a wheelchair threw a piece of cake at the painting on May 29 and shouted at people to think of planet Earth.

Where have artworks been attacked?

Many agree that climate change is a problem

A Pew Research Center poll taken in 2019-2020 found that majorities in developed countries – including nations with A22 organizations or where art was attacked – say their national governments aren’t doing enough to address climate change and that climate change is a “very serious” problem. 

Famous art has been attacked in the past

People have vandalized famous works of art in the past. The reasons vary – some were meant to draw attention to injustice, while others were acts of mentally unstable individuals. Incidents include:

1914: Suffragette Mary Richardson uses a meat cleaver to slash “The Rokeby Venus” by Diego Velázquez, in the London National Gallery to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Today: The painting was repaired and is on display.

1970: A version of Rodin’s The Thinker at the Cleveland Museum of Art is damaged by a bomb placed on its pedestal. No one ever claims responsibility for the act.

Today: The statue, in its damaged condition, is on display outside the museum.

Photo of Michelangelo's Pieta from the book
Photo of Michelangelo’s Pieta from the book “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces” by Miles J. Unger

1972: An Australian man named Laslo Toth uses a hammer to smash pieces off the sculpture Pieta by Michelangelo in St. Peter’s Basilica. He breaks the left arm and parts of the face. Toth is later judged to be insane and deported.

Today: The sculpture was repaired and is on display behind bulletproof glass.


SOURCE USA TODAY Network reporting and research; Associated Press




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